Sakura, or Cherry Blossoms, line the ragged, rocky bank of the Kiso River that flows past my beautiful mountain school. The trees have been in bloom all week, but today is the first day it hasn't rained, making this chance to enjoy the fragile beauty of these short-lived blooms all the more precious.
Spring buds burst, and so I gaze,
Blossoms fall, and so my days
Bassho, Haiku Master
The tradition of hanami, literally meaning flower viewing, is centuries old. It was once believed that cherry blossoms were the most accurate indicators of the coming harvests. If the blooms were full then the merchant classes would party and parade in their best kimonos, as it predicted a bountiful rice harvest. The traditional appeal of cherry blossom viewing is also said to lie in its poignant reminder of the fragile beauty and brevity of life.
By the end of the 17th century the hanami party had become a ritual popular across all social classes, and the tradition continues today as friends and families gather for picnic parties under the huge cherry trees, armed with bento boxes filled with delicious treats, beer and sake.
A lot of planning goes into hosting the perfect hanami party. Securing the right position could involve laying your mat before 8am and some even hire a person to reserve their space. Cunning corporates send their junior employees out before sunrise to stake a claim on the prime picnic spot for their company function, partly explaining the many young men in suits found snoozing under the trees while they await the arrival of food, drinks and guests.
TV stations give weather forecasts with blossom blooming predicitions and updates, while newspapers print maps with tiny pink dots to pinpoint the best hanami locations for this much anticipated event but you'll need to arrive very early at famous blossom-viewing venues such as Tokyo's Ueno Park Osaka Castle, or Maruyama Park in Kyoto. Hanami comes but once a year! Kampai!